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This article was published 11/7/2015 (2131 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BIRDS HILL provincial park — Day 2 of the folk-fest heat wave was a doozy — the sun glared down unforgivably with only a few whiffs of breeze offering sparse seconds of relief. Lineups for water taps and showers were dozens long, and every show ended with a disclaimer to keep hydrated. Thankfully, as the main stage lineup began, a storm was looming in the distance, causing temperatures to cool and everyone to get a bit more comfortable.
Weather aside, Saturday night was really all about Arlo Guthrie. The recipient of this year’s artistic achievement award from the Winnipeg Folk Festival for his, and his family’s, contributions to the folk music community (including 29 of his own albums), Guthrie, 68, wasted no time proving why he is a folk legend.
He opened with Motorcycle, a classic, quick witted tune before diving into the appropriate Chilling of the Evening as rain drops began to trickle from the sky, finally offering a bit of respite from the unbearable humidity.
Guthrie, not surprisingly, is a storyteller, often taking long breaks between songs to regale the audience with a funny yarn or two about performances past. Picking up where his first story left off, Guthrie slid into Coming Into Los Angeles, a detailed account of the hardships of air travel while you’re carrying drugs. A 60s folk anthem at its finest.
Arlo Guthrie plays at the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill. Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press
Before too long, Guthrie struck up the familiar opening notes to the spoken-word epic, Alice’s Restaurant Massacree — a story now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Though the majority of the audience has heard Alice’s dozens of times, they still laughed like it was first time they’d heard it, eyes glued to Guthrie, who was telling it like it was the first time he’d told it. The piece earned him his first standing ovation of the night. He received two more before the evening was over.
He ended things with the classic This Land is Your Land, the audience now almost entirely on their feet (he stopped halfway through the song to tell a story about it, of course), singing and clapping along.
José González followed, bringing to life a set of his stunning acoustic songs. Things got really mellow as his rhythmic plucking and soft singing became almost hypnotic, creating a daze of sparkling melodies and harmonies as the sun set over the park. González is definitely one of the quietest performers — both in volume level and the fact that he hardly said two sentences on stage — but his skills speak volumes. The ease in which he manipulates his guitar is inspiring and his vocals were never anything but spot on.
Frazey Ford opened the night with a swooning compilation of relaxed tunes. She has a distinct trembling twang that is irresistible, filled out wonderfully with a horn section and a typically slow, methodic drum beat. Ford looked like a goddess on stage — clad in a shiny gold dress and draped in a long, royal purple kimono-style jacket, she oozes sex appeal and swag, the physical embodiment of her slinky songs.
As the threat of an incoming storm danced along the horizon, Dan Mangan + Blacksmith took their place on the mainstage. Folk fest favourite Mangan and his signature rasp were in full form, blasting through a powerful selection of songs, allowing his rock roots to shine.
Dan Mangan + Blacksmith plays at the Winnipeg Folk Festival at Birds Hill. Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press
Mid-set, Mangan calmed things down and played the heart-rending Basket, with just him and his guitar. It was a moment to remember as it seemed a hush fell over the entire mainstage audience as Mangan’s voice cut through the air, capturing the full attention of everyone in front of him.
Nahko and Medicine For The People were also scheduled to perform later in the evening.
Sad songs on a sunny day
Word around the forest was Donovan Woods and Jeremy Fisher were comedy gold during the I’ve Got You Under My Skin workshop at the Spruce Hollow daytime stage. Also partaking were Romi Mayes (filling in for Mo Kenny) and Les soeurs Boulay. It was supposed to be a workshop filled with angsty songs, which none of the performers realized until right before they went on stage, but they seemed to embrace the theme as some took a darkly humorous approach, rotating through a handful of songs each.
Highlights include a duet Jeremy Fisher did with the ladies of Les soeurs Boulay, who praised him for his french-language skills. And, Donovan Woods brought some audience members to tears with his performance of a song about a boy asking his dad a question from the back seat of the car about love songs — a corny topic, maybe, but his way of tackling it warmed the soul.
A little ways away at Little Stage in the Forest, the Weather Station were also deep into a melancholic set, though band founder Tamara Lindeman managed to poke a little fun at just how much she doesn’t like fun. "I’m gonna surprise you guys with a real sad story," she joked. "I know it’s the last thing you were expecting."
Her songs are full of unexpected melodies, jumping from place to place yet still remaining coherent. It’s impossible to tell where her delicate, sleepy vocals will hop to next, but it’s always intriguing.
Harmonies, harmonies, harmonies
Twin Bandits took the first set over on Little Stage in the Forest, and the two ladies from Vancouver stunned with their ethereal, precise harmonies. The sisters are skilled songwriters, tackling typical folk-music topics but making them sound fresh. The pair also played a tweener set on the mainstage, taking a second opportunity to wow a much larger crowd later in the evening, especially with their a cappella opener.
Over at Shady Grove, Aussies Luluc brought their dreamy folk rock to the fest for the second time (first was in 2010). The pair were adorable, joking and chatting with each other and the audience, pushing the already adoring crowd toward full-on falling in love with them. The voices of band members Zoe Randell and Steve Hassett blended into the fullest, most delicious harmonies — almost overwhelmingly perfect. They exude a Simon and Garfunkel vibe; calm but very precise. This is not lazy music making, though it elicits a kind of dozy, relaxed response. More than one audience member conked right out, letting the sweet sounds of Luluc lull them to sleep.
A pair of weird and wonderful workshops
The World on a String workshop epitomized the collaborative spirit of the daytime stages, with three diverse groups from very different musical traditions coming together to create a polyglot, multicultural stew.
Scotland’s Rura, Hungary’s Sondorgo and Quebec’s BaredeFou bought their particular traditional styles together as if they’d had days to practise (and despite the fact the members of RURA all had, as the guitarist Adam Brown admitted later, "splitting hangovers.") The opportunity to see a bagpiper take a solo after a wicked riff on the tambura is part of what makes folk fest workshops lightning in a bottle.
Back at Shady Grove, one of the most electric lineups of the weekend was assembled for the Made in the Shade workshop — Leonard Sumner, Donovan Woods, Marlon Williams and Daniel Champagne. The four guitar-wielding men were appallingly good, each one taking his turn at the mic and pumping out one jaw-dropping moment after the other for 90 minutes. Standouts include Champagne’s cover of Nirvana’s Come As You Are, Donovan’s hilarious inter-song rhetoric that counterbalanced the heartbreaking delicacy of his work, Williams’ sweet, nostalgic voice and Sumner’s moving piece about bodies found and still missing in the Red River.
Other than the guitar, these four men don’t have a ton in common, but what happened on that stage was magic — a workshop that’s sure to go down in folk fest lore as one of the best.
Today’s mainstage lineup is full of California sunshine with Dawes kicking things off at 6 p.m., followed by Jenny Lewis and Wilco. Steve Poltz will perform a tweener set, and Nathan Rogers, RURA and the Jones Family Singers will also perform as part of the festival finale. Things are expected to wrap up around 10:30 p.m.
— With files from Jill Wilson
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Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.